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Coronavirus Pandemic Put A Halt On Plans To Tackle America's Opioid Crisis


2020 was supposed to be a year of reckoning for America's opioid epidemic. Companies that fueled the crisis selling billions of opioid pills face an avalanche of lawsuits. But the coronavirus closed courts and brought the legal process for the most part to a screeching halt. And over the last year, we've seen even more opioid overdoses and more deaths. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins me now to take stock of what's going on.

Welcome back, Brian.


CORNISH: Let's dig into that information about overdose deaths. What's going on in terms of the opioid crisis at this point?

MANN: Yeah, sadly, painfully, public health officials say it's gotten a lot worse in 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert earlier this month warning that overdose deaths have spiked during the pandemic. It's not just overdoses - excuse me, opioids. It's all kinds of street drugs. But what appears to be driving this now, Audie, is this incredibly dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl that street dealers are mixing into more and more of their drugs. We talked about this with Matthew Donahue at the Drug Enforcement Administration. He said fentanyl used to be found mostly in the eastern U.S., but it's spreading now all over the country.

MATTHEW DONAHUE: We see that in our drug samples of our seizures and our undercover buys. It's a disturbing trend. It's just getting worse, and it's just killing too many people.

MANN: Now, the Trump administration has worked to slow fentanyl coming from China. But an NPR investigation found Chinese companies are still exporting fentanyl chemicals, often now working with Mexican drug cartels. The CDC says the final toll from overdoses in 2020 could top 81,000 deaths. That would be a devastating new record.

CORNISH: Are there any solutions, so to speak, during the pandemic; any new approaches to help people who are struggling with addiction?

MANN: Yeah, people are fighting this really hard, Audie. There have been some interesting experiments, people holding support meetings online, a lot more telehealth. The federal government has relaxed rules that restrict medical treatments for people, making it easier to get drugs like methadone. But this isolation for people struggling with addiction is really devastating. I spoke about this with Jennifer Austin. She's in recovery, works as a counselor in Ogdensburg, N.Y. That's an area where overdoses have surged.

JENNIFER AUSTIN: In recovery, we tell people not to isolate, that it's bad. You know, if you're spending too much time with yourself, if you're not reaching out, if you're not making connection with people, that's a red flag for a lot of people. And then the pandemic comes, and we're literally told that we're supposed to be isolating. Like, stay away from people.

MANN: Yeah. And one other problem, of course, is that public health departments all over the country struggling with opioid addiction are also incredibly strained by the pandemic, at a breaking point in some parts of the country.

CORNISH: I want to come back to the issue of lawsuits because 2020 was supposed to be the year that there would be some action against companies that made and sold opioid pain pills, perhaps even settlement money to help communities that have been really affected. But what's happened?

MANN: Yeah, public health officials hope some of that money from these companies would come quickly. I talked about this with Joe Rice. He's one of the attorneys suing these corporations involved in the opioid crisis. He points out the trial dates have all been pushed back, and some haven't even been rescheduled yet.

JOE RICE: COVID crisis has not helped. Courts have not been able to do in-person proceedings now for almost a year, and that certainly slowed the process.

MANN: And there have been some legal developments. Purdue Pharma agreed to an $8.2 billion settlement. The Justice Department just sued Walmart over its role in the opioid crisis. But again, very little money so far is making it through the pipeline to communities coping with this crisis.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Mann.

Thank you.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.